Cousin Fred’s garden mausoleum

Joanna the Mad stands beside her husband’s coffin. By Francisco Pradillo, held at the Prado, Madrid

What I am about to write might surprise you. Or perhaps not, given that it’s written by someone who’s posed with a skull (don’t worry, it wasn’t real). It certainly surprised me when I first heard about it. A conversation with my mum, as we drove to Sainsbury’s one day, went like this:

“I’ve got in touch with descendants of grandad’s cousin in New Zealand.”
“Ohh… what was he called…? Fred, was it?”
“Yes, that’s right. Fred, and he – .”
“Grandad said he kept his wife’s body in a glass coffin in the lounge.”
“He -? Sorry… did you just say – ?”
“He was a bit peculiar.”
I stared blankly through the windscreen. My grandad’s cousin kept his dead wife in his lounge? How on earth does one broach this with one’s newly discovered relatives? “Oh, I hear your grandad…. erm….”

Fred’s mother was the half-sister of my great-grandmother. A tad confusing, so let’s just say that Fred was the cousin of my grandad. He married Aida in London in 1908, and a year later they emigrated to New Zealand. Fred was a book-keeper, a fairly normal sort of bloke, really, who dressed in dapper fashion. He bought some land on an island that bumped up against the NZ coast, and there he built a house, where he and his wife and children lived happily.

And then, in 1942 – while their sons were away fighting – Aida died of cancer. She and Fred had been married over 30 years. And this is when things become unconventional. Did Fred have her earthly remains interred in a local churchyard or municipal cemetery? No… no he did not: Fred built a mausoleum in his garden.

Rather than set Aida’s coffin into the ground, she was embalmed and placed in a sealed box inside a coffin. The coffin was put inside the chapel’s ceiling space, and it could be viewed behind a wall.

But this was not what people heard when they found out about Aida’s resting place. There’s what my mum believed she had been told by her father (had he got it wrong, or had my mum misremembered?). And then there were the NZ locals. While tracing Fred’s family, a friendly NZ genealogist was helping me.

“Now… do you know why Fred’s wife was buried in the cemetery after him, even though she died before he did?”
“Yes,” I said, “My mum told me she was in a glass coffin in the lounge.”

It turns out that my helpful genealogist had lived near Fred’s island. The locals all believed that he kept his wife’s body in the lounge, and rumour said that Fred sometimes took her out of the coffin and sat her embalmed corpse at the table. He received a lot of abuse for his decision to keep his wife near him: local kids would dare each other to run past his “spooky” house at night.

The truth of the matter – the fact that he’d built Aida a garden mausoleum – came about in a local magazine, which emphasised memories of Fred and his family, with a tiny mention about Aida’s unusual funerary arrangements.

Even so, one wonders why Fred chose to do this. He was a very religious man, and some scanned pages of a notebook he kept contain Bible quotes, and snippets presumably from a church magazine about evil, and Bible prophecies. There are the memorial notices he posted in the newspaper each year, in remembrance of his wife, and then a list detailing the “Cost of Chapel” – the building of his wife’s mausoleum. Did he put her in the ceiling because he liked to think her elevated towards Heaven, rather than buried in the ground?

There are numerous stories about people who lost their loved one and couldn’t accept it, so kept their body with them. Joanna the Mad (Juana la Loca), the Spanish princess, is perhaps the most famous, carting the body of her dead husband, Philip the Handsome, around Spain and demanded the servants treat him as if he still lived (one suspects he didn’t remain handsome for long). Should anyone wish to re-enact Joanna’s vigil, Philip’s coffin, and Joanna’s, can be viewed in Granada Cathedral.

And for all that my grandad might have thought Fred’s mausoleum a trifle odd, he dealt with the loss of my grandma in a slightly similar way. Just as Fred could not bear to be apart from Aida, my grandad could not remove my grandma from his life. He always set a place for her at the table, and he left her handbag in the hall as if she was still somewhere in the house. My mum and I were alone in his bungalow once when we both noticed the very strong sensation of my grandma’s presence. It was strongest by my grandad’s bedroom door – and hanging on the back of it, we found my grandma’s dressing gown. Although he’d told my mum that after grandma’s death, he’d taken all her clothes to the charity shop, in fact, after his death, my mum found all her clothes still filling the wardrobes. And as my grandma was quite the swishy-dresser, there were a lot of clothes – evening gowns, smart trouser suits, velvet jackets with costume jewellery brooches.

After my grandad’s death, I was with my mum when we collected his ashes from the undertaker. Seeing as we were in the middle of Colchester, and seeing as I needed some new tights, we decided to go home via Marks & Spencer. It was quite surreal taking a box of ashes around M&S, and of course, it was so discretely packaged that no one would’ve known of our solemn cargo. But as he used to enjoy a spot of shopping, we both think he enjoyed his last trip.

I think of my own brushes with grief. When I was 12, our cat died; it was just after Christmas, so his garden resting place was marked with the holly wreath from the door. Every day I came home from school and stood beside the little grave and stared down at the holly leaves as they started to wither and turn brown. One day, presumably as a response to other stresses in my young life, I got down on my knees and in tears started to scoop the earth away; I wanted my cat back. But something stopped me and I patted the ground back into place – I didn’t stand at his graveside again. Some years later, I read Wuthering Heights; when Heathcliff dug up Catherine’s body, I felt I partly understood why.

Nearly all of us will face losing a loved one; most of us have faced this already. Grief and bereavement can make us do strange things.